As part of an ongoing effort to enhance their effectiveness in combating the opioid epidemic in Washington C.H., police are charging individuals who survive suspected drug overdoses with a first-degree misdemeanor.
In the Feb. 25 edition, the Record-Herald reported that the Washington C.H. Police Department recently increased its patrol and hired new police officers to help handle the reports from residents in the city concerned about suspected drug-related activity in their neighborhoods. Charging suspected drug overdosers with “inducing panic” is another facet of this initiative.
Since this new enforcement technique was instituted two weeks ago, police have charged around seven individuals who reportedly overdosed and were revived by Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan — a antidote used to block the effects of opioids, especially during an overdose. When administered intravenously, the Naloxone works within two minutes and when injected into a muscle, it works within five minutes.
“If we get to the scene of a suspected overdose and the narcotics have already been ingested and there is no drug paraphernalia within view, sometimes there is no other charge to utilize,” said WPD chief Brian Hottinger. “In this case, there is a single charge under the Ohio Revised Code that we can utilize and that is ‘inducing panic.’ This is not only to keep the drug users accountable, it’s another avenue to get them into the system and get them the help or treatment that they need.”
The inducing panic charge is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Hottinger said he is aware that these charges could add an additional burden to the Fayette County Jail, which is already routinely overcrowded. On Monday morning, there were 76 individuals being held in the jail, which is located at the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office. The jail currently holds only 56 beds and its “rated capacity,” which is the state’s designation for the maximum number of beds or inmates that may be housed in a jail, is 28.
“Anytime we make an arrest, it’s always a concern with overcrowding,” said Hottinger. “The jail is running at or above capacity pretty much all of the time. But we still have to enforce the law. Many times, those who survive an overdose are treated at the hospital and we don’t take them from the hospital and put them in jail. We serve them with a court summons and that’s how the process begins. The judges can also work with the sheriff’s office and there can be an order where the person gets probation and rehabilitation rather than jail time.”
The sheriff’s office regularly works with Fayette County Court of Common Pleas Judge Steven Beathard, Fayette County Probate/Juvenile Court Judge David Bender and Washington C.H. Municipal Court Judge Victor Pontious on these types of issues, according to FCSO chief deputy Andy Bivens.
“They are all fantastic to work with when it comes to the overcrowding issues,” said Bivens. “They are well aware of the jail’s daily population and that sometimes factors in.”
Sheriff Vernon Stanforth said he is not opposed to and understands the city’s new policy, but also noted that it will increase the burden on the county jail.
“Most of these users are being served a summons and they won’t be brought to the jail the day they overdose, but they’re still going into the system,” Stanforth said. “A lot of the people in jail right now are for probation violations and those stem from the drug use, such as failing a drug test.”
Stanforth said his office will not charge drug overdose survivors with inducing panic.
“Most times, we can only act on any drug or drug paraphernalia we see in plain view even if we’re pretty certain that there is a drug overdose,” Stanforth said. “Also, you can get into, ‘Is this a medical condition or a criminal condition?’ This is an addiction just like alcoholism is and alcoholism is considered a medical condition. Now there are all sorts of crimes that can stem from alcoholism, such as domestic violence and disorderly conduct. But we don’t simply arrest someone for a medical condition.”
Every sheriff’s office deputy carries Narcan with them in their cruisers. Still, the problem only seems to be getting worse.
In January, there were 45 reported drug overdoses in Fayette County and 56 in February. Twelve of those suspected overdoses resulted in deaths, according to FCSO statistics. For comparison, there were 28 reported overdoses in the county in January 2016 and only eight in February 2016. The majority of these reported overdoses occurred within the City of Washington Court House.
“For all of us in law enforcement, it breaks your heart,” Stanforth said. “This is a universal problem and there are overcrowded jails in all of these counties around us. We are seeing an unprecedented surge of females in the jail. Approximately 25 percent of our jail on any given day are females and they are all drug-related charges. These men and women with heroin problems are having a ripple effect. The family unit has been decimated, many children are wards of the state. I just talked to a lady in this community who is the great-grandmother of an infant child and that child is living with her and she is taking care of that child because the mother is in prison. This great-grandmother is working part-time just trying to make ends meet.”
Hottinger also noted that filing criminal charges against a drug overdose survivor could be a wake-up call for some individuals.
“We’re not doing this just to throw them in jail, we want to help these people,” he said. “But if they’re making the decision to inject poison into their system, there are consequences. We’re in the business of enforcing the laws of the state of Ohio and holding people accountable.”
City officials have also stressed that those who report an overdose and those who are with the drug user will not be subject to charges.
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352 or on Twitter @rywica
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